This will begin a seven-part series of posts that were taken from the WWII diary of my father, Dr. M.B. Casteix, Jr. It will also draw upon his WWII photo album for some of the images you will see here. My plan is to release the seven “chapters” over the next two weeks, concluding it on Memorial Day
Why am I doing this? Because it needs to be done. We ought to remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, sacrifices that gave us the freedom we enjoy today and how precious that freedom is. We also need to understand that we, like them, might be called upon to make similar sacrifices to maintain that liberty.
Before we start, some background on the man:
MB, as we called him (even his kids did), was Martial Bruno Casteix, Jr. His French grandfather immigrated to America, landing in New Orleans in the mid-1860s. His grandmother was also French as was his mother. We can safely say he was French, yes? Yes. He spoke very little French, which I find surprising considering his French background and all the time he spent in support of French units during the war. Maybe he spoke more than I realized because I found some French grammar studies/notes in the back of his diary.
Technically, MB was my stepfather, but he was the only “father” I ever really knew—and he was a good one. My mother married him after divorcing my birth father. I was five at the time. They had two girls together, Jeanne and Martia.
MB was born in New Orleans and lived all of his life there up until WWII. After the war, he resided in Kenner, a suburb of New Orleans, but that’s another story. His father, Martial, was a pharmacist and owned several drug stores in New Orleans but lost them during the depression. Martial and MB’s mother, May, were bona fide New Orleans characters. Go here if you would like to read about some of their antics.
MB was very bright as was his younger sister, Marguerite called “Margie.” She was born on MB’s birthday exactly two years after he was born. For a while, the family resided above one of the drug stores in a building on Bourbon Street that is now the Famous Door Bar. If you are ever in New Orleans, drop into this famous French Quarter haunt and have a drink where MB lived as a child. I told some tales of that period in his life here so I won’t repeat myself now.
As I said, MB was a very bright kid; he skipped two grades in school and entered LSU medical school two years younger than most of his classmates. (See UPDATE below.) He graduated in 1941 and since he spent his schooling in New Orleans he claims he never set foot on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Upon graduation, he immediately went into the Army. He was 22 years old at the time.
The image above was taken before the war and probably while he was in med school.
16th Med. Regt.
That is what the first page says. After several pages of addresses for friends and family, we find the first date in his diary, 18 Aug 1942, and that is for an entry made in England. MB was inducted into the Army right after graduation. He once told me he received no formal military training. He got uniforms, a commission, and orders that took him to Camp Carlyle, PA and then England and ultimately to North Africa and Italy. Because of that lack of military training, he said he was never quite sure who he was supposed to salute while touring Washington DC.
Unfortunately, I never took notes during our many discussions about his wartime service, which were usually in the nature of short comments or brief “war stories” over the 50+ years of our time together. Later in life when we went on fishing trips to Alabama, after a day of fishing on the private lake of my hunting club and with a few adult beverages under his belt, MB would often tell a story or two. But I never recorded those either for which I kick myself because he told many wonderful stories.
MB served during the North African, Sicilian, and Italian Campaigns all the way to Rome and beyond. His experiences were many and varied. For a period he was attached to Darby’s Rangers has his surgeon when Darby’s regimental surgeon was wounded. He spoke of the “crazy” Rangers forming up for chow in the middle of an artillery barrage—they were on the receiving end, not the giving.
He once mentioned an orderly who came down with VD, and he treated him with sulfur, the usual treatment for that before penicillin became common. Unfortunately, the man turned out to be allergic to sulfur and almost died. “But I cured him of syphilis,” was his closing comment on that story.
He told another story of yet another orderly (the same one?) who wasn’t all that right in the head (MB’s description). He disappeared one day during an artillery barrage—incoming again. They found him a few days later. He had burrowed into the side of a hill and sealed himself in along with a case of Italian wine. He was passed-out drunk.
The image above is of the Company D, 3rd Platoon officers. Front – Bob Sharoff, MB, Sal Iraci (Platoon Leader); Back – Tom Sherman, Son Carroll.
There aren’t many stories in his diary, and the few we do find there are rather sketchy, leaving much to your imagination. In fact, his diary doesn’t follow any normal format we would associate with a wartime diary, especially in the beginning. Mostly it consists of names of towns, sights, events, happenings, people, and those are limited to only one or two words as if he intended them merely as a reminder to recall the details later. Later he did get just a bit more descriptive and reveal some of his inner thoughts and feelings as he described the amazing things he was experiencing. We get just a taste of what life was like for him. Unfortunately, it leaves us wanting to know more.
In addition to his diary, I have his photo album. Based on one contact print in the album, I concluded that he used a 35mm camera. I never knew him to own a camera when I was growing up and I don’t know what happened to it. I do recall him telling me “they” developed the film in the chemicals for processing x-ray negatives, but I can’t figure out how he printed them without a proper enlarger to do that. A mystery like many in his diary…
Like the diary, the pictures leave us wanting a context to put them in. There are no notes in the album next to the images, and the backs of most had no comments there either. The few comments on pictures were often very brief with names of people I know nothing of. I’m not even sure where most were taken and will have to draw conclusions from their place in the album and the few images that do have dates on the back, assuming they are in order.
In this series, I will attempt to take what I can from his diary and photo album and turn it into some sort of a story. I hope you enjoy this little peek into the private life of M.B. Casteix.
UPDATE: I got a message from my sister, Jeanne, that adds more detail to MB skipping grades. I had heard he skipped two grades. Jeanne says it was three. The third one was 8th grade. She tells me this is what she recalls: “On the first day of 8th grade, his first year at St. Aloysius, he was playing and bonding with some boys. When the bell rang for them to line up, he lined up with his new friends and went to class. The next part is what I find hard to believe. It took St Aloysius three months to figure out where MB was. He was in class with his buddies in 9th grade! Making A’s, they left him there. Hence, he skipped 8th grade too!”